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The New Neighborhood Is in the City

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Say the word neighborhood and for some it evokes a colorized version of the 1950s -- a house with a lush lawn on a cul-de-sac, Dad throwing the ball to his Little Leaguer, Mom waxing kitchen floors. That seems to be what Nicholas Lemann prefers in his much-dissected anti-city essay in the New Yorker last month. Lemann bashes the new celebration of cities, and romanticizes suburban living with its "streets and sidewalks jammed with children playing."

We beg to differ. Lemann joins a long line of folks revering an idyllic past that never existed. The truth is the kids are inside, playing Wii and messaging on Facebook; the parents are too afraid to let them play outside unsupervised. What's more, the suburbs can be more isolating than the cities, with six-foot fences, gaping garage doors instead of porches, and commuting adults gone all day. And there's nothing to celebrate about strip malls and freeways.

Ironically, the neighborhood Lemann recalls so fondly is thriving -- in cities. Suburbs are so twentieth century -- this is the metropolitan century in which large urban areas are flourishing economically and socially. Living in a far-flung suburb may once have meant an easier lifestyle -- but in the Bay Area it can mean a two-hour deadening commute for the breadwinner, a taxi service sentence for the parent, and plummeting home values. What's hot is living near great restaurants, parks and museums, and sidewalk cafés.

Cities provide a place for people to network, to exchange ideas. Even if the next app isn't designed on a napkin at a café, Lemann is wrong to suggest that high-tech companies in Silicon Valley don't require "serendipitous pedestrian culture." Those car-centric office parks are passé, and Google knows it; right now, Mountain View is planning for more homes near downtown so Silicon Valley employees don't have to commute for hours to get to work.

The other thing so troubling about Lemann's nostalgia for the burbs is his middle class bias. We can agree that everyone wants a neighborhood -- a village of people to watch over pets and plants, to lend us milk when we've run out. But this neighborhood vision shouldn't cater only to the middle class and it certainly doesn't happen only in a subdivision. In fact, thriving diverse neighborhoods can be found from downtown Oakland to townhomes near the San Mateo Caltrain station to San Francisco's Mission District. The disabled, the elderly, the childless -- many of them prefer urban life where bus stops, parks, and farmers' markets are plentiful. And guess what -- they can still water each other's plants and borrow a cup of sugar.

It's time we planned for our changing demographics -- the Baby Boomers are headed into their golden years and many will lose their driving privileges. Edward Glaeser is right -- cities are greener. City life makes it easier for people to walk and bike more, reducing the risk for obesity and the stress around commuting.

That's another important reason to live closer to where we work: it's the sustainable thing to do. Sprawl is not here to stay, as Lemann suggests -- and if it is, we're in trouble. We need farms, not subdivisions, on the greenbelt to provide food for the region. Fortunately, here in the Bay Area, cities may be rewarded for planning sustainable futures. There's money in placing homes closer to transportation choices and jobs.

Which brings us to the final point: urban living is healthier for people and the planet. It's startling that Lemann makes only a glancing mention of the most vital reason to live locally: the less we drive, the more we reduce greenhouse gases.

That suburban existence we see through rose-colored glasses? If you haven't realized it yet, climate change may soon fog your view.